Behind the linguistic scenes of Avatar
James Cameron’s Avatar has been generating its own language headlines independent of the film’s mainstream reviews and press columns. This is down to Na’vi – the language created especially for the film which has quickly built up a strong linguistic fan base and a site geared towards beginners wishing to learn Na’vi.
Paul Frommer is the linguist behind the language – a renowned expert whose languages include Hebrew, French, Latin, German and Malay and who is co-author of Looking at Languages: A Workbook in Elementary Linguists. In an interview with Unidentified Sound Object he explains how an email from James Cameron’s production company was forwarded to him with the request to develop an alien language. His remit was to create a complete language with consistent phonology, morphology, syntax and lexicon. Cameron had already created around 40 words which gave Frommer a feel for the desired final product. Cameron chose one of the three different ‘sound palettes’ which Frommer provided and the rest is history.
Na’vi language development commenced in 2005 and there were many things which had to be considered. Elements rare to human languages were included in this process – ever conscious of the actors that would be required to pronounce the words. This came sooner rather than later when the casting director had to take a crash course in Na’vi to be able to check if potential actors were able to pronounce the words or replicate the sounds.
Another aspect in the creation of the language was that The Na’vi (the humanoid natives of the planet Pandora) did not have a writing system. Nevertheless, it was necessary to have a written record of the language to enable the actors to learn their lines and for descriptive purposes – hence the Roman script. Music was another factor. The score contained Na’vi lyrics and as Frommer is a pianist with a musical background, he was able to work with the singer and help fit the words to the music.
Such is the interest in the language that a website called learnnavi.org has been created by Sebastian Wolff who is bilingual himself – but in English and German! The Santa Cruz Sentinel reported that Frommer supplied additional vocabulary to Wolff’s website, which has received more than 750,000 visitors in less than two months. The site contains everything a beginner needs to get by in Na’vi: a downloadable Na’vi pocket guide, a wiki, grammar guides and vocabulary lists. Frommer also created additional words for the Avatar video game when new dialogue was required.
It appears that there will be no shortage of linguistic contributors for Avatar’s sequel and that the language will have reached a further stage of development with an increasingly popular crowdsourcing project underway which is already out of this world!